a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Me and Ingmar Bergman have a checkered past. Like Fellini and, to an extent, Truffaut, The Brooding Swede™ was a gateway filmmaker I eventually forsook. My earliest memories of cinephilia -- and surely I'm not alone on this -- involve marveling over The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Silence, which I then congratulated myself for "getting." (Sort-of, in the latter case.) His stark images, starker ideas and starker still monologues, whose bluntness I too often confused with honesty, were intregal in making me feel hardcore about loving cinema, just as he was intregal to the popularity of world cinema in the '50s. There's no doubt that without him -- or Fellini, or Truffaut, or anyone else I watched at the time -- I wouldn't have found Godard, Buñuel, Bresson, Ozu, Teshigahara, Imamura and onto the Tarrs, Assayases, Denises, Weerasethakuls, etc.

But I also don't want to give you the wrong impression.

The truth is that I often find Bergman more than a little bit insufferable. I appreciate his contributions and innovations, and even like them from time to time. I would even say I generally "like" Bergman. But at least half of what I've seen of his work strikes me as juvenile and onanistic, and not in the good ways. Not long ago, I wound up in a bizarre bar-set debate over Toy Story vs. The Seventh Seal. Don't ask. Both, weirdly, have similarities. Each deals with an existential crisis -- Woody vs. his sudden irrelevance in the face of a new, flashier toy; Max von Sydow vs. mortality itself. And I totally came down on the side of Toy Story. While The Seventh Seal deals with life and death in stark terms, using undeniably iconic imagery, I realized that the superficially lighter Toy Story actually explored its crisis more thoroughly. (Actually, it's Toy Story 2 that plums really deep.)

Would Pixar even have had the cajones to wrestle with such Big Ideas had Bergman not first made it chic? Possibly not. But there's respect and there's genuine appreciation, and the twain shouldn't necessary meet.

The weird thing is I'm not alone in my blasphemy. Once upon a time, or so the story goes, Bergman was the toast of Cinema -- appearing on American talk shows, getting all (or most) of his films released stateside, having his name associated with intellectual restlessness. Nowadays, you get Dave Kehr lambasting Criterion for kicking off their budget-priced Eclipse label with early Bergmans -- this out-of-fashion auteur. I don't think this is a minority opinion. With the DVD revolution making cinema literacy even easier, budding cinephiles don't need to subsist on just La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, Jules and Jim, Day For Night and the collected work of miserable old (dead) Ingmar Bergman. Why delve into Eclipse's Early Bergman when there's Late Ozu to be had? Those with regionless players can watch seven hour Béla Tarr movies or Jeanne Dielman, fer chrissakes. What's the point in trawling through that plodding ode to mortality, Cries and Whispers?

I'm not sure myself, and in typical Bergman fashion, I feel a pang of guilt for writing him off, no less because when he's good, he's pretty dang kickass. I have little use for some of his work, but I still don't mind being among the breathless throngs when it comes to Persona, Scenes From a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. I can even somewhat rationalize away the plainness with which he presents his ideas -- you know, just having people stand there and talk about them? The bald theatricality of his staging and the plainness with which they're filmed -- actors talking without moving in a static frame -- has an otherworldliness that can be pretty infectious. It's like his films go from cinema, past theater and back into cinema again. (They've also clearly inspired no less a passionate fella than Arnaud Desplechin -- surely Bergman's polar opposite in temperament. Kings and Queen steals Bergman's idea of having dead people simply strut on up to the living and chat them up, as well as the whole notion of having people reading their letters to the lens.

And let's not forget that he's a whizz with atmosphere, particularly in creating a sense of menace. Even as straightforward and clumsy a film as Winter Light has a hushed, depressive sense of dread that's palpable. Even as overloaded and fussy a film as The Silence has a hothouse atmosphere that Tennessee Williams would lap up, and a rampant weirdness that no doubt did a number on David Lynch young, impressionable self. And then there's the no-stops-pulled climax of 1966's Hour of the Wolf, which still sticks out as unmistakably Bergman amidst all the other psychdelic freak-out set pieces of the era.

I doubt I'll ever come around to the work of his that I don't much care for. (Sorry, Cries and Whispers.) But his passing makes me suddenly interested in going back to fill in gaps that I probably wouldn't have otherwise bothered filling. (Last year when I watched Hour of the Wolf, I was mildly appalled that my last new Bergman was about four years before.) I can't help but wonder if his death will give his rep the kick it might almost deserve.

In the meantime, here's five films of his I heartily endorse:
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
The Silence (1963)
Persona (1966)
Scenes From a Marriage (1973)
Fanny and Alexander (1983)
(a boring list, now that I look)

But just things aren't too reverent, here's five I could...well, not do without, but you know:
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Winter Light (1962)
Cries and Whispers (1973)
Autumn Sonata (1978)



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